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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Sea chest; hardwood; whalebone and baleen inlaid; mid-19th century, sold for $8,337.50. Photo courtesy of Freeman's
They knew many of their fellow sailors would take their last breath in ships smashed by tropical typhoons or flattened by artic ice.

Such was the risk for crewmen aboard a whaleboat in 1870. Voyages could last five years, much of the men’s time spent in monotony and frustration.

It’s doubtful the 19th century Yankee whalemen stopped to think about the damage being done to the world’s population of whales. There was money in their pockets, and they knew the flesh of one whale could keep an entire New England community alive through the winter. In 1820, Nantucket was supplying more than 30,000 casks a year of sperm oil to grease the gears of the Industrial Revolution.

To ease the monotony of life at sea crewmen spent hours scrimshawing. With nothing but jackknives, they etched scenes, mostly reflecting whaling life, onto whale’s teeth, walrus tusks and bone. Sometimes an engraving tool the size of a large needle was also used.

The etching was brought to life by rubbing ink into the lines scratched on the surface. An unspoken rule existed that the four-or-five-inch teeth of the sperm whale always belonged to the crew.

“We are regularly cruising with not enough to do to keep a man off a growl,” wrote whaler William Davis, in his 1874 journal. “As this habit cankers the soul, I prefer to scrimshaw.”

Pieces carved were usually gifts for women they hoped were waiting at home and included tools for crimping pastry, napkin rings, letter openers, umbrella handles, chessmen, knitting needles, dominoes and birdcages.

Scrimshaw is one of the few art forms native to the U.S. and not all of it is rare or valuable. Many of the pieces were small and undecorated, and these pieces often show up at auction for reasonable prices.

The makers, called scrimshanders used whatever materials were available. When no whale teeth, bone or baleen could be found, they used materials found on shore. Rosewood, teak and gumwood were sometimes combined with ivory and bone to make objects like picture frames.

The most fervently collected scrimshaw is probably the teeth and this is where you see the most fakes and modern pieces. Not all were made to deceive, but rather to supply the demand for engraved teeth.

How can you tell the difference?

Scrimshanders in the 19th century knew the ships they etched in-and-out, and their renderings are detailed. Their whales are accurate portrayals.

Inaccuracies are a tip-off of recent work. Authentic scrimshaw is also buff-colored because the whalemen polished each one with oil that darkened it. Modern pieces often appear whiter in color than the antique examples.

Incisions should also be shallow in the teeth because carvers worked with relatively crude tools. Crevices and unfinished areas are common in modern teeth.

On April 29, Freeman’s in Philadelphia, Pa., featured a selection of scrimshaw in its Americana and maritime auction. Here are some current values.

Auction Highlights

Knife; whalebone; carved with a reindeer, sleigh and flowers; 19th century; 9¾-inches long; $126.50.

Domino set; miniature carved whale ivory; in cylindrical container with threaded lid and carved-dice finial; 19th century; 2 inches high; $138.

Whale’s tooth; carved with a whaling ship on one side and star and anchor on the other; mid-19th century; 4 inches high; $287.50.

Rolling pin; cherry wood and ivory; ivory handles; 19th century; 21¾-inches long; $322.

Container with alphabet letters; whale ivory; tiny cylindrical-carved ivory case with screw cap; early-19th century; $517.50.

Bible box; mixed-wood, with hinged lid; base and sides inlaid with whalebone, ebony, baleen, and mother-of-pearl in the shapes of stars, diamonds, etc.; mid-19th century; 14 by 9¾-inches; $805.

Sea chest; hardwood; whalebone and baleen inlaid; mid-19th century; 36 by 16½-inches; $8,337.50.

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